Be still, and know that I am God!

Psalm 46:10

Stranger | Thomas Merton

When no one listens 
To the quiet trees
When no one notices
The sun in the pool

Where no one feels
The first drop of rain
Or sees the last star

Or hails the first morning
Of a giant world
Where peace begins
And rages end:

One bird sits still
Watching the work of God:
One turning leaf,
Two falling blossoms,
Ten circles upon the pond.

One cloud upon the hillside,
Two shadows in the valley
And the light strikes home.
Now dawn commands the capture
Of the tallest fortune
The surrender
Of no less marvelous prize!

Closer and clearer
Than any wordy master
Thou inward Stranger
Whom I have never seen,

Deeper and cleaner
Than the clamorous ocean
Seize up my silence
Hold me in Thy Hand!

Now act is waste
And suffering undone
Laws become prodigals
Limits are torn down
For envy has no property
And passion is none.

Look, the vast Light stands still
Our cleanest Light is One!

I came across this poem in a 1956 magazine clipping that I found in an early edition of Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain” that I am grateful to own. Here is a picture of the clipping I found:

There are two poems published here, obviously, but “Stranger” is the one that I want to reflect on here.

This poem begins with an observation that oftentimes in our busy world there is no one listening “to the quiet trees” and no one noticing “the sun in the pool.” The beginning of contemplation, Merton reminds us, is to listen and to notice. But this requires us to quiet ourselves, to be still, and to observe what otherwise is missed. Merton’s poem reminds us to do what Mary Oliver would later call her “instructions for living a life” – “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Merton did this so well. It was a gift of his that was nurtured through his life in the monastery. The solitude, silence, and life of prayer that he found there helped him to pay attention and to tell us about it.

When we are able to do this, to stop and pay attention, we might well notice Merton’s bird already there – sitting still and “watching the work of God.” Nature contemplates even when we are too busy to do so. And for that very reason, paying attention to the natural world around us is one way to learn how to contemplate, to pause long enough to watch the work of God again.

Contemplation also brings us back in touch with that part of us that connects so intimately with God, what Merton in this poem “Thou inward Stranger / Whom I have never seen.” As Augustine reminds us, “The Lord is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” But this mysterious Stranger is often unseen to us, perhaps because we do not even stop long enough to see ourselves. Which turns this poem toward prayer. “Seize up my silence / Hold me in Thy Hand!”

When this poem makes that turn toward addressing God directly, it begins to read like a psalm to me. There are many psalms that are structured in this same way. They begin with speaking of God in the third person but then turn toward addressing God in the second person. Psalm 23 is a classic example of this. It begins, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.” But then it turns to addressing God directly: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me.” 

So, too, with Merton’s poem. And so, too, whenever we spend time contemplating the wonders of this world and the work of God. Our contemplation turns to prayer, where, in Merton’s words our “suffering [is] undone, “laws become prodigals” and “limits are torn down.” Our eyes now open, we see, as if for the first time, that “the vast Light stands still” and “Our cleanest Light is One!”

But this “cleanest Light” is often seen clearly only when we stop the flurry of activity in life, and return to sitting still and watching the work of God. Much like the water in a murky pond, our souls need us to be still enough to let the dirt of life settle if we are to see the clean Light shining upon us. This is the gift of contemplation, of learning to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). This is the gift that Merton received and shared with the world through all of his writings, including this wonderful poem. May God’s vast and gracious Light shine upon us all.

6 thoughts on “Stranger by Thomas Merton

  1. I need this, daily. And the tie to one of my favorite Mary Oliver quotes. Thank you! I shared those very words with my seniors this year. I struggle with being a “Martha” instead of a “Mary.” Part of it is the weight of being father to six children and a husband to a wonderful woman. I work myself to the bone before I take time to sit down and receive such wonders. And that means I miss SO MUCH. I need God to help me better order my days. More than you needed to hear, but a timely word from God for me today. I’m printing this out to put with my Bible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am thankful that you found their words to be as helpful as I did. It sounds like you have a lot on your plate! But it also sounds like you are a very caring teacher, a very faithful husband, and a very loving father. It can certainly be a struggle to balance the “Martha” and “Mary” within us all. But I like to remind myself that Martha’s misstep was not being busy serving others, but being “worried and distracted by many things.” Of course, spending time in prayer is the best way to keep from being worried and distracted while serving others, but it can be quite a challenge to find the space and time to do that, especially when you have so much on your plate.

      My prayers will be with you as you continue to serve others while seeking God’s help to order your days. 🙏

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on the deepening ground and commented:
    In this busy season for me serving as an AP English Literature Reader while still being the husband, father, son, musician, and everything else I am to someone in my life, I needed this. Not only is the Merton poem wonderful, but don’t miss the Mary Oliver quote in the reflection as well!

    Liked by 1 person

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